Origins of the nyamwezi

Origins of the nyamwezi


  • The Nyamwezi are Bantu speaking who belong to the central and Northern Tanzania Bantu.
  • They are closely related to other tribes such as Sukuma.
  • They are an example of a de-centralized society.
  • They had fairly organized political, social and economic features.
  • They first settled in central Tanzania around Tabora between 1000—1500 AD.
  • They migrated from the Congo basin and entered Tanganyika through the western part.
  • They used the route between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Edward.
  • The name Nyamwezi means people from the moon.
  • It was given to them by the coastal traders who saw them coming from the direction of the new moon (west).
  • Originally, they lived in small chiefdoms bound together by ethnic association.
  • During the 19th century, they developed centralized administration during the reigns of Mirambo and Nyungu Ya Mawe.

The structure of the Nyamwezi

Political organisation

  • The Nyamwezi lived in small independent chiefdoms of about 1,000 people.
  • They were united together by ethnic clan ties.
  • The Nyamwezi had a decentralized system of administration.
  •  Each chiefdom headed by a chief with the title Ntemi.
  • The position of the Ntemi was hereditary i.e. his son / close relative succeeded him upon his death.
  • The Ntemi had political powers and was in charge of law and order in his chiefdom.
  • In case of population explosion in one chiefdom or succession disputes, splits were done and a new chiefdom would be created.
  • The Ntemi was assisted by a council of elders called Wanyampala.
  • Wanyampala comprised of old, experienced and knowledgeable elders.
  • Chiefdoms were further split into small political units headed by clan heads called Gunguli.
  • Other important chiefs among the Nyamwezi included ritual officer (Mgawe), Army commander (Mtwale) information officer (Kikoma) Tax /revenue officer (Minule).
  • All these took orders from the Ntemi.
  • Each chiefdom had an army with a commander appointed by the Ntemi.
  • Before going for any battle, the Ntemi had to bless the army.
  • The Nyamwezi copied the royal regalia from neighbouring societies such as Bunyoro.

Social Organization

  • The Ntemi was the religious leader of his people and linked them to their ancestors.
  • The Ntemi was the fountain of the society and received a lot of respect from his people.
  • The Ntemi could marry as many wives as he wanted.
  • Upon the death of the Ntemi, his body would be buried upright with beer, food and weapons.
  • The Nyamwezi also believed in life after death and the spirits of the dead.
  • Ntemi would always preside over sacrifices to ancestors on behalf of his people.
  • The Ntemi was supposed to stop any calamity that would hit his people, their fields and animals.

Economic Organisation

  • The Nyamwezi were farmers and mainly grew cereals e.g. millet and sorghum.
  • The Ntemi always mobilized his people to grow enough food, settle land disputes and guard against misuse of land.
  • The Nyamwezi also kept animals for example goats and cattle.
  •  The Ntemi and his chiefs always kept large herds of animals.
  • Tax collection was also part of their economy and the Nyamwezi always collected food as tax.
  • The Nyamwezi had established food granaries which were directly under the Ntemi.
  • These were used to feed his body guards, members of his palace and other people in case of hunger and famine.
  • The Nyamwezi also carried out some fishing to supplement their diet.
  • The Nyamwezi locally traded with their neighbours e.g. the Vinza for salt and Zinza for Iron.
  • The Nyamwezi also participated in the long distance trade with the coastal Arabs.
  • They controlled the central trade route and provided slaves, bee wax, Ivory.
  • In return they got guns , beads and clothes .
  • Raiding on their neighbours was also a major economic activity carried out by the Nyamwezi.